Why Supporting 'Buy Local' Campaigns Is More Conservative Than You Think

We can all agree that Black Friday is an unequivocal evil, right? Many of us spent a significant portion of the weekend chuckling at the Day of the Locusts-like stampede of porcine consumers doing flatscreen-judo on the killing floors of Walmarts throughout the country, all the while decrying mindless consumerism even as we echoed the mindless reactionary talking points on our corporate overlord Facebook. Go back and look in your social feeds for evidence of the pontificating outrage. Other, more stridently-political among us stumped for Buy Nothing Day.

On Saturday the rhetoric shifted focus to a different, albeit still consuming-based, holiday: Small Business Saturday, or came in the frequent reminders about the Shift Your Shopping campaign.

The conceit behind these efforts is that by spending our money at locally-owned businesses we reinvest in our community, keeping our money circulating among our friends and neighbors. This is such an entrenched idea among progressives like myself that it's become universally accepted as dogma. Buy local! Support your community! Wave hello to the milk man on your way to your job at the friendly local factory! Never mind that Small Business Saturday was founded by a little mom and pop shop called American Express; it's still possible for corporations to occasionally bungle their way into good even if their motives are profit-based, right?

There's a disconnect between the types of people who are so vocally supportive of these local-movements, and our traditional approach to the idea of community. I'm frequently espousing the merits of drinking locally in my writing on the subject, saying support brewers and distillers located in Massachusetts; many of us do the same when it comes to our food choices. There's both an argument for quality, health, and an overall carbon footprint to be made there, as well as one of regional pride. I was just drinking a locally made whiskey with the phrase Made In Boston stamped across it's label last night, and I was proud of that for some reason. This is from where I live! Look at me go, getting drunk on the fruits of my specific geography. I'm some sort of hero, right?

But where is the line between local business advocate and provincial rube drawn? I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that most of us who engage in politically-motivated local-consumer practices also happen to hold a conflicting, perhaps hypocritical set of beliefs that shuns the type of people for whom "local=good/outsiders=bad." Why is it OK to shop locally under the veneer of political philosophy, but not out of regular old necessity?

Is there anything more shameful than a fervent pride in the square acreage of land where you happened to be born? Civic pride leads to state pride leads to nationalism. To be a townie is anathema to the type of people in my socio-economic class. It means uneducated with no sense of curiosity about the world, and being generally suspicious of outsiders. Think about the people you know from your own home towns who draw deepest from the well of hometown pride for their sense of self -- small-minded losers, right?

So what's the difference between Buy Local campaigns and jingoism? Why should I be in favor of supporting businesses who produce in Massachusetts, but then scoff at an older generation who looks with xenophobic scorn at products, and people for that matter, from other countries? OK, you might say, it's a pretty big matter of geographic scale, but where exactly do we draw the line then? How many geographical square miles am I actually allowed to "support" here before I start becoming an "America love it or leave it" type?

And isn't this refocus on the local community something very akin to what conservatives are talking about when they say they want America to "go back to how it used to be"? How about the traditional conservative tent pole of "states rights," where does that come in here? Think of the type of Uncle Sam-iconography often used to argue for Buy Local campaigns. Does buying local actually make me a Republican now? Uh oh.

It's all part of a disconnect between the politics of stridently pro-labor liberals like myself and our distaste for actual, you know, working people. For liberals and young people, supporting local businesses is often couched in a sort of proletariat irony -- Defend Allston, or Keep Austin Weird T-shirts and the like -- it's playacting at a simulacrum of nostalgia misremembered from our youth. When we say we want to have a bounty of local businesses to choose from in the places we live, it's because we treat our environment like a curated museum of funky consumer options that lend credence to our highly-tailored personal brands. Frequenting your locally-sourced, farm-to-table vegan coffee shop is as much an effort in identity politics as it is politics as such. When the working class talk about keeping their communities from changing it's because they want a place to actually work. Also because they're so often racist, but that's a whole other thing.

That's where the attendant conservative hypocrisy comes into the equation. The disconnect between the working class Republican voter has been well-documented, continually voting against their own economic interests, and regarding any effort to keep corporate influence in check as "socialism," but this is an area on which both progressives and the blue collar classes have a very specific common goal, it's just one that we aren't able to find common ground on because of the framing of the argument. For both sides keeping money and businesses locally is a shared good, but as in so many other overlapping, yet somehow conflicting arguments, we won't admit that we actually agree unless the path to getting there has been tailored to our own sense of self. Perhaps that's because we're all such staunch supporters of the hyper-locally-based factory of the most abundant product in existence: our own individual pride.